In this week’s CITY newspaper, Bill Pruitt responded to James A. Brown’s review of Black Panther that Bill feels is uneven and misses the complexity of the characters and the overall excellence of the film.
Today Bill offers his own extended review of the movie.
I enjoyed Black Panther. It moved me and sustained my interest. Movies can do these things occasionally, and we are fortunate when they do. But I believe Black Panther is something different, something new in the world; at least in the world of America, and of mainstream American cinema.
What is special about it? First thing to note is the obvious one. It shows African-American actors in a broad spectrum of personality, not just of the hero/villain, good guy/ bad guy axis, but a rich continuum of characters, including strong men with weaknesses and bad guys with back story. Not just formulaically sketched.
As some reviewers have completely missed, Erik Killmonger is never held up as a positive model. From the first time we see him in the museum, we are aware there is something about him amiss, something different, so in contrast is he with the characters we have seen in Wakonda. But once we know Erik’s full story, we understand something more about him. This is what good action films should do, and what they usually don’t. An action film does not have to be character-driven to be character-plausible. Likewise, W’Kabi is a Wakandan and at first an ally of T’Challah, the leader and hero of the story, but he has his own views and his own mind, and his opinions represent a state of mind we all recognize: “You let the refugees in, you let in all their problems.”
This mind-state is at odds with the general drift of the Wakandans— as embodied in their leader— and of the story, but W’Kabi’s intelligence is allowed its expression, and he is not demonized for holding the wrong opinion. And so Black Panther builds its effect by placing large, sovereign forces in conflict, and the forces all express the range of intelligence among Black characters. (Everett K. Ross and Ulysses Klaue, the White guys, are there more for comic effect than anything, which suits the story.) This is all unusual in film.
But what sets BP apart even more is the positing of Wakanda as existing. It is a very powerful metaphor: vibranium came from the heavens. It is responsible for this advanced civilization which just happens to have been created by Black people; but “we” (as in the rest of the nations of the world) haven’t noticed it.
It is this civilization which allows us to see this rich continuum of sovereign Black characters who are unaffected and unsullied by historical contingency, colonization and slavery. Yet their knowledge of that contingency is hilariously and instantaneously revealed when the brilliant and irresistible Shuri looks up with a start at the just come-to Ross and says, “Oh, you gave me a shock, Colonist.” So it the construction of this entirely plausible metaphor of Wakonda that allows us to see Black characters not just “realistically,” but simply with the beauty and nobility of their own humanity. Of course, the metaphor wouldn’t be as effective if it weren’t for the fact that human civilization actually began with Black people. Finally, This is an action film with human presence.
Black Panther is the true inheritor to the Star Wars lineage, by which I mean the first six, not the watered-down pale and infantile imitations of The Force Awakens etc. Black Panther is Star Wars with human presence. It has style in its pores. The sight of the Wakandan guard, the half-circle of women with spears aimed and primed at the men of the Jabari tribe while the two leaders engage in ritual combat, is an indelible icon and visual metaphor for a state of perfectly held tension between women and men. BP’s women are real; they do not have to pretend to be intelligent (they just are), and to suffer (they just do), because for once their situation isn’t contingent on their treatment by whites. Without interference, they have taken what life has given them, which includes suffering and power.
So there it is: enough strong and (differently strong) women to suggest what a matriarchy might really look like, metaphorical underpinnings and an action movie with style and human presence. Put it all together and you’ve got something new under the sun.